OFF THE CARPET: Holding back

Posted by · 10:01 am · October 20th, 2008

Meryl Streep in SoubtEvery Oscar season is about managing expectations. Studios, of course, want to keep the murmurs to a minimum whether they have the goods or not because the peril of peaking too early is just as bad as the sting of negative word-of-mouth. Similarly, being “the one to beat” sets a film up to rise to an unfair occasion rather than coming to the table fresh.

Holding back is a tradition and is even one of two philosophies on the awards season sell. There are those who’ll tell you that, if you have a great movie, you should show it and show it proudly. The other side of the equation believes in the manipulation of when and where opinion will trickle out. It seems every year a train wreck of sorts occurs, and this year, that train wreck was obviously “Frost/Nixon.”

After landing in London to some mediocre reviews (no one at this site, by the way, ever said the film was bombing with critics across the board), should Universal Pictures have been particularly surprised? Ron Howard, America’s white-bread filmmaking standard exhibiting to the chilly British disposition? It wasn’t going to be a rapturous reception, and with the film having been completed for months on end, holding back until the London festival to give anyone a sanctioned peek raised eyebrows long ago.


Now, the studio is in a position of drawing attention to the positive assessments, yearning for coverage of this four star review or that.  But the sting of last week’s “‘Frost/Nixon’ gets ‘frosty’ reviews” headlines is still there, while American critics are feeling slighted for not getting a fair shake.

On the other hand there is Focus Features’ management of “Milk.”  We’ve had the film in the #1 position of our Best Picture chart for a number of weeks now because it was in the rare position of lacking any negative buzz.  Rather than teasing with footage (which Paramount is probably kicking themselves for doing in Telluride with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) or offering extremely early looks at the film to select press, Focus has waited patiently for the movie to be finished.

Sean Penn in MilkThe film finally started screening last week for long-lead and trade personnel, and lucky for the studio, the mixed whispers (I’m hearing “glossy” and “greatest hits”) will only have a week to dent the armor before the majority of critics and press see the film on October 28, either at the San Francisco premiere or at one of two screenings lined up in Los Angeles on that date.  For comparison, “Frost/Nixon,” will be unveiled for American critics on the same day, a full two weeks after the headache of London has had the chance to eat away at expectations.  Or maybe it’ll just go away.  You never can tell.

Miramax Films has been holding back on “Doubt” considerably, part of the old-school mentality that you want to play up your hand like it’s a big secret before finally dropping it on the unsuspecting masses.  The same can’t be said for “Revolutionary Road,” which has honestly been in the editing room waiting on Sam Mendes to come back to the film and finish it while he’s been multi-tasking other projects.  Ditto “Australia,” which I even heard could be pushed to 2009 last week.

Going back to “Benjamin Button,” the decision to show a number of clips to Telluride audiences in September obviously proved to be a hiccup for Paramount.  In the studio’s defense, no one could have anticipated the amount of bloggers that showed up at the festival this year, eager to file immediately on the fractured pieces of a complicated narrative.

Their decision to file can and should be defended, even if their judgment while filing is certainly in question.  At the same time, offering up pieces of a film is just asking for backwards interpretation (no pun intended) and a film as complex as this should be protected a little more.  But it doesn’t matter at this stage, as the David Fincher film is increasingly becoming “the one,” much to the delight of studios who’d rather not be locked into a frontrunner status.

Trust me, we don’t HAVE to see something.

And of course, the other side of “holding back” is waiting in the wings yet again: Clint Eastwood.  Everyone knows it’s coming.  Warner Bros. isn’t playing peek-a-boo, they just don’t have a finished film to show.  The situation with “Gran Torino” is different than “Million Dollar Baby” because it won’t be an eleventh hour shock.  It is closer to “Letters from Iwo Jima,” when critics were waiting for the director to redeem himself after failing to deliver a masterpiece (how dare he!) earlier in the year.  Though I do not share the cold “Changeling” sentiments of so many of my colleagues.

(from left) Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx in The SoloistWhen you get right down to it, the point of any decision in this business is always going to be just that: business.  “The Soloist,” for instance, did not move to March as any “fuck you” from Sumner Reedstone to DreamWorks SKG, it was simply a shrewd money decision.  The studio saves a lot of Oscar campaign dollars and dodges the possibility that the film gets lost in the awards film shuffle by moving out of the way and into greener pastures.  Better to be a big fish in a little pond than vice versa.

Similarly (though not in all cases), if a film is being launched here or there first, or if it is kept under wraps or screened relentlessly, it’s all in service of what the studio thinks is best for the film monetarily.  And awards perception has a direct effect on box office in some way, small or large, depending on the philosophy.  But year after year, it seems that studios get lost in this haze of strategic thinking, while others (Fox Serchlight leaps to mind) always seem to just swim right along, immune.

Whatever the case, the answers will come.  They always do.  And in some instances, the shock of disapproval might have been off-set by slow revelation rather than the quick rip of the band-aid, while the eruption of mass acclaim might have been better managed in doses rather than all at once.  The balance is impossible.  And make no mistake, I know I couldn’t do it if I were in these people’s shoes.  In the meantime, we wait for the rest of the season to reveal itself.  By the middle of November, the question marks will disappear and the task of guessing the Academy’s taste this year will be on the docket.

Then it’s a whole other headache.  Until then, all we have are our best guesses…

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→ 37 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Featured · Off the Carpet

37 responses so far

  • 1 10-20-2008 at 10:15 am

    Mr. F said...

    I hope Australia doesn’t get pushed to 2009! It has been the movie that I’ve anticipated the most since TDK came out and I’m dying to see it.

  • 2 10-20-2008 at 10:20 am

    Mr. F said...

    Also, it is nice to see “The Fall” showing up in the charts, I’d also add it to the cinematography chart, but that’s just me. Hopefully it will be remembered by the end of the year.

  • 3 10-20-2008 at 11:09 am

    Jamie said...

    I think it is important to keep in mind how films that receive mixed critical reactions can still garner impressive mainstream support. I’m thinking specifically of Changeling and Frost/Nixon.

    I believe Changeling will play well with the somewhat upper-level masses who go in expecting a genre film rather than Oscar bait. If continued Angelina Jolie interest propels the box office to a reasonable stature, I think it could be enough to keep it in contention (see what I did there?).

    With Frost/Nixon… I don’t know. Like all Ron Howard films I still think people will cling to the glimpses of a solid film. I had a friend who saw it in a film class at USC last semester and said it played really well. I could definitely see its subject matter having popular appeal and capitalizing on feeling important.

  • 4 10-20-2008 at 11:30 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I still can’t believe all the Changeling hubbub. There’s too much being made about the supposed negative buzz surrounding it lately. Where is it then? It’s not as good as the brilliant reviews from Cannes so it is now poorly received? I don’t buy that for a minute. Anyhow, I’ll be able to judge for myself this sunday, same goes for Frost/Nixon.

  • 5 10-20-2008 at 11:47 am

    Diego said...

    WHY YOU DON´T COUNT WALL-E IN WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)?
    I ALSO CAN´T BELIEVE ALL THE CHANGELING BAD REVIEWS! I AGREE WITH JONATHAN…MAY BE IT´S NOT BRILLIANT AS CANNES SAY, BUT IT´S NOT A BAD MOVIE!!

  • 6 10-20-2008 at 12:09 pm

    Joe said...

    Im actually a bit suprised that “Little Person” by Jon Brion has not been in the running for best orig music. Its the song heard at the end of the Synedoche, New York trailer (and was recently released on the films facebook page) it really is incredible, i think a reason the trailer itself was so captivating.

  • 7 10-20-2008 at 12:10 pm

    Joe said...

    i ment best orig song, not music (as in score, tho i wouldnt pass up a score by Jon Brion either)

  • 8 10-20-2008 at 12:16 pm

    mike said...

    Love seeing Button moving up on the charts. I agree with Mr. F, The Fall is a great pick, though I thought it was first released in 2006 (maybe it wasn’t a qualifying run though)…

  • 9 10-20-2008 at 12:18 pm

    Casey said...

    Kris, with the new predictions you still have Frost/Nixon all over the place… I realize that it hasnt fallen like everyone is saying but EVERYONE agrees Ron Howard was not the man for this tale. dont you think its time to drop him lower on the charts?

  • 10 10-20-2008 at 12:36 pm

    Jamie said...

    I am also starting to suspect you either have seen Defiance and fallen madly in love with it or have some type of vested interested in its success. You broke the AFI news, got the exclusive poster, and it is still ranking pretty high on the charts despite getting so unceremoniously bumped? Any particular reason for the faith?

    Read a great profile of Liev Schrieber in last month’s W. Definitely wouldn’t mind him getting some attention.

    Finally: Yay! Ralph Fiennes is on the chart!

  • 11 10-20-2008 at 12:51 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Casrey: Not yet.

  • 12 10-20-2008 at 12:56 pm

    Ivan said...

    Looking backwards your 2006 & 2007 charts at this point of the race both best picture charts have 4 of the 5 best pic nominees in the top ten.
    Letters from Iwo Jima and There Will Be Blood weren´t consider in your october predictions.
    If this year this trend continues maybe a sure best pic nominee could be:
    Rachel Getting Married, The Wrestler or Doubt.

  • 13 10-20-2008 at 1:11 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I saw The Wrestler last week. That film will not come within spitting distance of a best Picture nomination. I loved it, by the way, but it is what it is: a vehicle for Mickey Rourke to get a nod. Nothing else. Maybe on Rachel (though plenty of people hate it) and maybe on Doubt (though most who’ve seen it are saying it’s all about the perfs).

    TDK is looking better and better each day, however.

  • 14 10-20-2008 at 1:21 pm

    Casey said...

    better and better… but not better than no. 9? just trying to play it safe?

  • 15 10-20-2008 at 1:28 pm

    nick said...

    As much as The Fall is a masterpiece, it will never get any Oscar love. It should win cinematography, and there mere thought that it won’t even be nominated is simply atrocious. More reason for me not to give a shit about the Oscars. Such a joke.

  • 16 10-20-2008 at 2:36 pm

    Thugnificent said...

    about the Wrestler comment…
    you said the same thing about No Country and There Will Be blood last year (well, you said they were too violent for the academy, not that they were just vehicles)

  • 17 10-20-2008 at 2:45 pm

    Ivan said...

    I revisit your 06 and 07 october charts and is interesting man, in both years 2 best pic nominees were in the first five spots (The Queen/Babel, Atonement/Juno) and the other 2 nominnes in the last five (Little MS/The Departed, No Country / Michael Clayton). So lets play again.

    From the first five….
    Milk
    Slumdog Millionaire

    From six to ten…
    The Dark Knight
    Australia

  • 18 10-20-2008 at 3:15 pm

    Aaron said...

    “maybe on Doubt (though most who’ve seen it are saying it’s all about the perfs)”

    That should be the clue…if it is an actor’s film, it will land in BP lineup since the acting branch is huge.

    I am concerned about Australia being delayed, anymore news?

    I think Dark Knight is going to need major support from the tech groups to land a BP nomination.

  • 19 10-20-2008 at 3:35 pm

    Mr. F said...

    I’m with you nick, but one can only hope. If norbit and click can get nominations, then I don’t see why the fall can’t achieve the same. But then again Norbit and Click were (for better or worse) box office hits.

  • 20 10-20-2008 at 4:27 pm

    Blake said...

    Your adapted screenplay top 10 list seems very thin. Elegy came and went. Body of Lies–come on now, look at the reviews. Granted, the competition is very thin. But I would put Gomorra or The Class over those two in a heartbeat.

    And you have to throw “Little Person” from Synecdoche, New York in your predictions next week. Considering the competition, it will get nominated.

  • 21 10-20-2008 at 4:49 pm

    Marvin said...

    Australia isn’t finished?!?!

  • 22 10-20-2008 at 4:53 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    probably a good point on the class

  • 23 10-20-2008 at 5:52 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yeah, I agree. “The Class” and “Gomorrah” both look good for adapted screenplay — and rightly so — though I’d give “Gomorrah” the edge as it’s the more constructed work.

  • 24 10-20-2008 at 7:19 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I’ve been at a loss on that category for a while, so the Elegy and Body of Lies mentions are just throwaways.

  • 25 10-20-2008 at 8:00 pm

    Patrick said...

    Why has Melissa Leo dropped? The academy is so over Nicole Kidman. She has been slumming since her win. “Bewitched?”

    Her celebrity greatly overshadows what talent she has. And again, the trailer brought howls from the Yale audience.

    Give it a rest.

  • 26 10-20-2008 at 8:03 pm

    Patrick said...

    Melissa Leo, Richard Jenkins, Heath Ledger and Penelope Cruz are the great performances so far this year.

  • 27 10-20-2008 at 9:15 pm

    Kokushi said...

    Robert Downey Jr have been awesome this year.

  • 28 10-20-2008 at 9:49 pm

    Glenn said...

    Patrick, Kidman has hardly been slumming. An actor doesn’t make a Lars Von Trier film like “Dogville” plus stuff like “Birth”, “Fur”, “Margot at the Wedding”, “The Golden Compass” and “Australia” if they are “slumming. “The Invasion”, sure.

  • 29 10-21-2008 at 12:55 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yeah, I agree with Glenn — Kidman-bashing has become a very boring sport. She’s had misfires, sure, but that’s because she takes risks — which occasionally result in spectacular work like “Birth.”

  • 30 10-21-2008 at 1:14 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Kidman is taking risks again, and she deserves something in return. Anyhow, if Australia moves too. I can’t even imagine…
    Also, could the Wrestler perhaps get a nod for Aranofsky or perhaps Slumdog for Boyle instead of Howard for Nixon, while Nixon does get a BP nod?

    BTW, does anyone know if those songs at the end of the Appaloosa soundtrack are originals or olders songs? I love ’em both.

  • 31 10-21-2008 at 2:13 pm

    Jamie said...

    With the Best Supporting Actor category looking weaker every day, what about Javier Bardem gaining some traction for his performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona? $21 million at the box office is extremely impressive– how many specialty films have done better? Further, with Rebecca Hall getting a Gotham nomination yesterday the film will continue to remain in conversation, so why not?

  • 32 10-21-2008 at 4:49 pm

    McGuff said...

    Just wanted to find a spot on the site to say that I just saw “W.”, and I found it to be fantastic. I didn’t think Stone had it in him to put together such a measured account of the President, though I should say I haven’t seen “JFK” or “Nixon.” I will say that I don’t think the movie will age particularly well — I feel like most of the humor will grow stale in time, but it sure works now.

    I can see Kris’ problems with the script, however, the narrative is fairly disjointed, and at times, over the top.

    As far as its effect on the Oscars, I certainly hope to see Josh Brolin recognized for his efforts. I can’t decide who my favorite supporting character was, but I think I’ll throw my support behind James Cromwell, who was quite fabulous as the first President Bush.

  • 33 10-21-2008 at 6:50 pm

    Drew said...

    Surely Australia is not going to be pushed to 2009.
    I believe some studios hope it is so it will not be competition ( Oscars) to their films. I know Baz is still working on the film and it probably won’t get any advance screening till it’s release. I am hoping some top critics will get a sneak and the film is great with great critical ads on television before the Thanksgiving Holidays. That is the only way it will succeed at the box office here in America. I think it will be a smash overseas.

  • 34 10-22-2008 at 1:42 am

    Brady said...

    Out of curiosity, what became of Beckinsale’s post-Toronto buzz? If “Nothing But the Truth” (with its Novemer 30 release date) ends up surprising people, I could see the star-centric HFPA nominating the youthful Beckinsale’s work over that of Leo and Scott Thomas. Anyone else get that suspicion?

  • 35 10-23-2008 at 1:53 pm

    Patrick F said...

    Great piece. I’ll just go out on a limb and say that Gran Tornio could end up being a vehicle for Clint Eastwood winning his first and only Acting Oscar. With Frost/Nixon and Milk potentially set up to recieve mixed reviews, The Soloist going away, and no real ‘BAIT’ performance jumping out, It’s no wonder Eastwood smells blood in the water.